Lexicon Valley

How to Spice Up Your Swearing Game

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by comedynose/Flickr CC.

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing

What the fuck has become so commonplace that, as our own Nancy Friedman pointed out, marketers are no longer shy about alluding to it. But its ubiquity has meant a loss of its former power, and we’ve had to find ways to intensify it when our amusement or bewilderment graduates to incredulity.

According to the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, or GloWbE, these are our favorite ways to spice up this popular dish:

What (in) the …

  • actual fuck
  • fucking fuck
  • flying fuck
  • living fuck
  • holy fuck
  • bloody fuck
  • blue fuck
  • ever loving fuck
  • juddering fuck
  • screaming fuck
  • American fuck
  • double fuck
  • fat little fuck
  • fuckety fuck
  • goddamn fuck
  • literal fuck
  • motherfucking fuck
  • real fuck
  • shitting fuck
  • suffering fuck
  • sweet fuck
  • unholy fuck

A few themes emerge from this list. If we ignore our sweary friends (fucking, bloodygoddamn, motherfucking, etc.), whose role as intensifiers is familiar, we see a few established expressions, including flying fuck and blue fuck. We also see several adjectives that establish the fuck’s realness—actual, literal, real—and others that give the fuck agency, including living, ever loving, screaming, and suffering (which, one could argue, is another form of realness).

In GloWbE’s small sample, what (in) the actual fuck dominates, appearing four times as often as what the fucking fuck. Rather impressive, considering what (in) the actual fuck is relatively new: Google Trends records instances in November 2010, and it first appeared on Reddit in February 2011, rapidly becoming widespread later that year and holding steady since 2012.

This realness as emphasis isn’t paralleled in the equivalent usage of hell. Roughly in order of popularity (ties are alphabetized), GloWbE gives us:

What (in) the …

  • bloody hell
  • fucking hell
  • bleeding hell
  • actual hell
  • holy hell
  • blistering hell
  • blue hell
  • fresh hell
  • living hell
  • damn hell
  • goddamn hell
  • sodding hell
  • sweet hell

… where bloody hell beats out fucking hell (which includes derivatives such as effing hell) 9 to 1. Actual hell does appear, but judging by when it began to be used, it’s likely that it is a euphemism of actual fuck—rather than actual fuck being a dysphemism of actual hell. Incidentally, a search of what the [adjective] shit didn’t yield any results, possibly because what the shit is uncommon enough that it doesn’t need intensification. The in in what in the fuck is optional, of course, and it’s usually dropped, but with actual (and literal), using it yields a most satisfying dactylic rhythm: what in the / actual / fuck.

In the same way that what the fuck has inspired wordplay, what the actual fuck has spawned the name of The Daily Show’s fact-checking segment, “What the Actual Fact?” And the truncated “what the actual … ” not only helps evade censors but also doubly conveys speechless disbelief—through its referent and through trailing off à la “I can’t even … ”

If usage keeps growing, what (in) the actual fuck may itself lose power. Literal fuck—and it’s not that the fuck is literal so much as literal is a convenient synonym of actual—has been picking up momentum as an alternative, but will it, too, inevitably yield to something else?